Head of the Family

Having a kid has forced me to examine a lot of things in my life. I have to think about what I say, how I say it, and the inadvertent message I am sending to my daughter any time I act. It is an constant exercise of restraint, self control, and leadership. It is something I never gave much thought until she was already here.

Starting my own family has also forced me to reflect on my own childhood. The traditions we had, the good times, and the bad. And after a lot of self reflection I’ve come to realize that I am the launching pad for my family. I am the transitional figure who will likely set a new precedence for future generations to follow.

I don’t mean that in an egotistical kind of way, it’s just that I believe I am the first person in my family to recognize and accept this responsibility. My father suffers from addiction, my mother from depression, both from lack of education. Going generations back there is no figure that holds the family together. There are few traditions and no one I would call the “head of the family”.

I want my wife and daughter to have these things. I even want my parents and in-laws to experience these type of things. I picture the entire family sitting around a big dining room table on special occasions. Love, security, and tradition. There was a shortage of those things in my life and I want my family to have it.

So when I’m angry I take pause. When someone upsets me I stop and think. Instead of reacting I reflect on the big picture. Sure, I could probably say something to hurt this person’s feelings, but instead I’ll take it for the team. I’ll be the glue that holds this family together. I’ll swallow the insults, the ignorance, and instead be a leader. I’ll do all these things because I can and there’s no one else to do it. My reward is the result.

Red Pill/Blue Pill

Recently, I decided to be son of the year and take my mom on a father/mother trip to Washington DC. I’d been working in the area for a while and decided to fly her up and have her stay with me in one of Washington DC’s fanciest hotels just a few blocks from the National Mall. It was a real treat for both of us.

I don’t have a history of getting along well with my mother, but I figured this time would be different. This time we’d bond and have a great time.

It didn’t go so well. I don’t need to elaborate or go into detail, but it really… really didn’t go so well.

I made a lot of personal discovery over the painful weekend though. It made me realize how much our experiences shape us. It made me appreciate the value of education, the college experience, travel and working in a diverse workplace. I made me realize just how boxed in many people become over time.

I don’t mean to fault the person who didn’t take the opportunity or possibly ever have the means or ability to experience these things, but instead want to stress that you should make it a priority in your life to seek these things out at all costs.

These things- education, the college experience, travel, and working in a diverse workplace are game changers. They are paradigm shifters. They are the difference between taking the Red Pill and the Blue Pill so to speak (as seen in the Matrix).

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Sadly, I get the impression that my mom sees me as uppity, snobbish or hoity-toity. And when I place myself in her shoes, and step back in time a bit and consider how I myself saw the world when I was a teenager, I guess I am just that according to my former self.

Today I’d defend myself against these accusations. I’d argue that I value quality and substance, I’d argue that there is true value to many of the finer things in life like the fine arts, expert craftsmanship, or even an admittedly overpriced craft beer.

Of course, all these perceptions and attitudes are things that have developed over time as I’ve met many different people from various walks of life, read endless books, sat in countless classroom lectures and seen multiple wondrous sights from different corners of the world.

My point is- enrich yourself at all costs. Don’t allow yourself to be boxed in, even if you think you are happy with this. Don’t accept the blue pill (the blissful ignorance of illusion). This path and formula isn’t the same for everyone, the elements of education, college, travel and a diverse workspace are simply my formula.

Find your own formula. Don’t take the blue pill. Open your eyes and step outside the little box of a mundane, two dimensional life.

-Holden

Sunday Morning Coffee

Sometimes I become very caught up with what I think life is supposed to be and forget what my life really is. Life doesn’t have to be so stressful. Life doesn’t have to be this continuous race – where there is no finish line. Life can be more (or less, rather).

That is what I love most about my Sunday morning coffee. I wake up at no particular time, slowly move down-stairs, carefully grind and prepare a cup of coffee, and enjoy the cool morning air on my front porch. It has been a methodical and almost meditative routine.

I take this time to think about nothing in particular. To enjoy a few squirrels running across my front yard, the birds making noise, and the leaves rustling from time to time. Most of all I enjoy the perfect temperature – before the Georgia heat forces me inside.

I wish I had more of these slow days. Maybe, over time, as I mature and allow myself to do so I will grow wise enough to give up more of my “ambition” and gain the courage to simply be present in each moment. Present on my front porch enjoying the world.  Like right now.

The Economics of Compounded Growth

Our economy slowly grows at around 4% a year. This is a given. An expectation. Anything less is seen as a failure, anything more is an achievement.

I read an article today that did a good job of putting that kind of growth into perspective.

“Let us imagine that in 3030BC the total possessions of the people of Egypt filled one cubic metre. Let us propose that these possessions grew by 4.5% a year. How big would that stash have been by the Battle of Actium in 30BC? This is the calculation performed by the investment banker Jeremy Grantham(1).
The trajectory of compound growth shows that the scouring of the planet has only just begun. We simply can’t go on this way.

Go on, take a guess. Ten times the size of the pyramids? All the sand in the Sahara? The Atlantic ocean? The volume of the planet? A little more? It’s 2.5 billion billion solar systems(2).”

This idea makes me wonder: Where is our breaking point? Where is the point in which we can’t sustain growth any longer? And what is our contingency plan?

I don’t know. Maybe we are already there. Maybe technology will let us keep going further than any of us ever dreamed. I don’t claim to know, but it’s certainly something we should all consider.

Problems and Solutions to the Broken Healthcare System

My wife and I recently had a little girl. Until that moment I had never been exposed to the healthcare and insurance ecosystem. I have been fortunate. I’ve never had an extended stay at the hospital, I’ve never been on prescription medication, and as an adult, I have never been to the doctor outside a checkup. Now I realize that the system is completely convoluted and non-transparent.

From what I can tell there are four major problems with the healthcare and insurance mechanisms.

1. Prices for healthcare services are unavailable, non-existent, or not published.
2. There is no crowd-sourced ratings system for hospitals (think yelp for hospitals).
3. Since everyone is insured no one cares about cost. This has resulted in higher prices.
4. The people have no power to control the quality or cost of the healthcare services.

These four problems ultimately result in a system that is too expensive, low quality, and where the people have no power to do anything about it.

Here are my proposed solutions:

1. Pricing for healthcare services are unavailable, non-existent, or not published.

Require all hospitals post itemized prices for their goods and services. Every procedure should have an itemized “menu” outlining what the procedure may cost. Since any given procedure is highly variable the menu should include “average cost”, “best case”, “most likely”, and “worst case” scenarios.

The menu should also include things like bandages, medication, and anything else a hospital could use to inadvertently pad the bill.  Great hospitals should even consider hiring a “budget specialist” who discusses costs and options with each patient.

These menus should be posted online and available before he procedure. This will allow individuals and insurance companies to shop around for a facility that meets the individuals’ need. This will also drive prices down since hospitals will be forced to compete based on price (or provide superior service to justify higher prices).

I would not eat at a restaurant that didn’t post prices so I should not have to receive healthcare services without prices either.

2. There is no crowd-sourced ratings system for hospitals (think yelp.com for hospitals).

There should be a crowd-sourced ratings system for hospitals. In my opinion this would have been a much better investment than healthcare.gov. When hospitals are forced to compete for business based on price and services the consumer benefits. Prices will ultimately fall and service will rise.

For example, in Atlanta there are several major hospitals in the metro area. For most procedures I have no idea what a service cost or who the best service provider may be. I usually just go to the closest major hospital. I imagine most people do the same thing.

A rating system would enable a consumer to quickly and easily search for a service provider based on thousands of consumer ratings. Ultimately a sick person cannot choose if they want to go to the hospital, but they can choose which hospital they visit. The power of consumer choice based on good information will ultimately force hospitals to compete.

3. Since everyone is insured no one cares about prices. This has resulted in higher prices.

The third major problem I see with the healthcare system are insurance companies.

Healthcare prices are so complex and expensive (for reason listed above) that no one can or wants to deal with it. We defer all responsibility to our insurers. Now, with the implementation of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) we have no choice anyways. Ultimately this leads to a system where no one cares about prices because they will be paying the same insurance premium regardless. But this is a false premise.

Because no one cares about prices and live under the illusion that their costs are the same there is no incentive to seek more cost effective solutions. People rarely look at their hospital bill and pay whatever the insurer requires. This ultimately leads to higher healthcare costs and higher healthcare insurance premiums.

Healthcare insurers should provide incentives (lower insurance premiums) to individuals who shop around for better prices and value. This would ultimately lower insurance prices and force hospitals to compete again.

4. The people have no power to control the quality or cost of the healthcare services they receive. 

The biggest problem with our healthcare system is that the people receiving the services have no power to control prices or the quality of service they receive. The appropriate infrastructure is not in place. All of the power resides with the insurance companies and healthcare providers.

Insurance companies operate as powerful unions who dictate what they will pay a hospital for a given good or service. Insurance companies have large staff who perform complex pricing studies so they understand what people are paying and how much a product SHOULD cost regardless what a hospital charges.

This results in hospitals charging several times market value for a given good or service because they fully expect the insurance company to pay only a small fraction of that amount. Meanwhile: the consumer is screwed, hospitals charge too much, and insurance companies reek most of the profits.

Obamacare:

Obamacare has only served to strengthen this broken system by further empowering insurance companies and disenfranchising the individual. Since EVERYONE is now forced to have healthcare insurance this eliminates any opportunity for individuals to negotiate or bargain for themselves.

Ultimately, we live in a system where the insurance companies dictate how much they will pay hospitals and how much they will charge consumers. Meanwhile, there has been no progress toward a system that promotes competition, dives prices down, or leads to better services.

Should we be worried about Climate Change?

With all of the media-created controversy about global warming I can’t see past the propaganda to form an opinion.  It seems like every climate change discussion is a prize fight between two entertainers (i.e., not scientist).

I get lost in the entertainment and can’t decipher the facts from the manufactured drama. It makes the whole topic of climate change seem like a farce. If we are really on the verge of death it seems like someone would stand up and say “Stop everything!” That hasn’t happened.

If things are as bad as climate activist would have us believe then why aren’t world leaders like President Obama taking monumental steps toward protecting the nation’s interests? There should be an immediate and mandatory ban on global emissions, all military and civilian resources should be dedicated to building flood barriers, creating alternative energy, and growing food reserves. None of this has happened.

Instead, even the most liberal politicians, have done nothing. We still protect oil pipelines in the middle east, we still have highest GDP on earth, and our economy still functions as the largest producer of pollution making machines (tanks, cars, and airplanes) on earth. That seems pretty anti-environmentalist if you ask me.

There are too many mixed messages and I think that is why so many people do not take climate change seriously. And for the average non-climate-change-scientist it is almost impossible to form an educated opinion.

I honestly do not know what to believe. I do not know if climate change is man-made or just part of the normal life-cycle of mother nature. I don’t even know if there is anything we can do about it.

Why does Education in America suck?

Since having a few kids, I’ve read a few books on education and parenting. A few I made my way through the first few chapters and discarded. But there are two books in particular I found really useful.

One was solely on parenting, a book called Nurture Shock, which discussed education but solely from the view of a parent. But the other- “The Smartest Kids in the World” by Amanda Ripley, really delved into not just what should be happening on a family level, but the national level.

Ms. Ripley dived deep into the education systems of some of the best school systems in the world, including Finland, South Korea and Poland. There is a decent book review on the NY Times website if you’re interested in learning more.

This post is not about reviewing her book though, it’s about cutting to the chase.

What is the #1 reason education in the USA is lacking?

Is it our spending on education? No. The United States spends money on education like we do our military. We practically spend more per student than any other country in the world. We fill our class rooms with fancy technology (which is pretty much proved to do nothing but enrich the vendors who sell the gadgets), our classroom sizes tend to be lower than in many other developed nations, etc.

Is it our culture? Yes! According to Ms. Ripley’s research, students in America don’t take education seriously enough. Families don’t reinforce these values well enough across the board. And sports and athleticism often times take priority over learning.

And this cultural shortfall buttresses into a related, equally large issue…

Is it our teachers! YES!

The reason our education system lacks in the USA is our teachers. Not that our teachers are bad people, but because as a society, we’ve not raised the bar high enough to become a teacher.

After reading “The Smartest Kids in the World” and seeing how teachers are revered and the standards teachers must live up to in the best countries for education in the world, I am convinced, it’s our teachers! They simply aren’t up to snuff.

Consider the following:

  1. How hard is it to become a teacher in the United States?
  2. How hard is it to get admitted to an education degree program at even well recognized Universities in the United States?
  3. How hard it is to earn a Master’s Degree in education in the United States?
  4. If you are a college educated individual with a decent paying job (over $60k for example) would you ever consider quitting your job to become a teacher?

In Finland, getting accepted to one of their top education tract programs at the University level is like being accepted to MIT in the United States! Teachers also earn upwards of $70-80k a year (comparative to US dollars).

Like it or not, we have a teacher problem in the USA. Again, not that our teachers are bad people, but just that ANYONE CAN BECOME A TEACHER! It’s simply too easy and it doesn’t pay well enough.

A lot of other great insights are offered up in the book, and I encourage anyone interested in the subject to check it out.

The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way on Amazon

-Holden

Learning to Control my Emotions

My job brings me many great benefits. In includes lots of free travel, free training, encouragement to get certifications on their dime and their time, and the endless hotel/air/credit card points. But damnit, do I get sick of putting up with all the bullshit, and there is plenty of it to go around.

But then I think to myself, “When have I ever had a job that didn’t force me to endure a lot of bullshit either one way or the other.” There is no perfect scenario. Something is always going to suck. What needs to change is actually me.

I need to start focusing on harnessing my emotions. I need to learn to become more Zen about my job.

The strange thing is, I’ve pretty well accomplished this in my personal life. I’ve dealt with crap family and in-laws for so long, I’ve just got over it and accepted it. It rarely upsets me anymore as I’ve come to expect the negative parts of my personal life.

Yet, ironically I can’t seem to get over this hump in my professional life, and I’ve been at this career thing for some time now- going on 10 years.

I think I’m going to start a new exercise. Each morning, the first thing I’m going to do when I walk in the office is write down my personal goals for myself that day, but they’re not going to be work goals, they’re going to be emotional goals.

I’m going to repeat it every single damn day until this becomes second nature to me, and I’m going to write it all in this spiffy orange notebook below. Every time I slip up, I’m going to break away and re-write it.

Every… single… day…. Until I become a master of my emotions. The goal isn’t to be emotionless, just in charge of them, to keep them in check at all times. This is my next big challenge in life.

My daily goals for Zen Mastery of my Emotions:

  1. Today, I will not become visibly annoyed.
  2. Today, I will not protest or react over emotionally to any news- good or bad.
  3. Today, I will keep negative remarks and feelings to myself
  4. Today, I will keep calm and cool like a beachside breeze…

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-Holden

Spirituality, God, and Self-Delusion

I used to talk to God all the time. I would pray for God to help me succeed. To help me accomplish goals, to help me get over problems, and for comfort. It was an excellent feeling knowing that something bigger and more powerful than myself would take care of me. Sometimes I miss that feeling. I wish I could get it back.

Sometimes, just out of habit, I find myself talking to God. When I realize what I’m doing I pause and reflect on the fact that no one is listening. Damn. I kind of wish there was someone listening. Maybe it’s a healthy delusion.

When I examine God I sometimes wonder if I could convince myself it’s real. Could I revert back to my adolescence and start believing again? This time it wouldn’t be the Christian God. It couldn’t be. There are just too many gaps on that front. But what about a deity? Just some higher power. Even then, I don’t think I could ever believe that this higher power is involved in my personal life.

Many of the founding fathers were deists. They believed there was something out there. Somewhere. Not an “it” but a “something”. At least they seemed to believe that. I’d like to believe that too. The comfort in such a thought is almost too appealing to ignore. Maybe there is some energy, some common and unseen force that connects all of the Universe. Maybe I can buy into that.

I really don’t know, but I do think spirituality is important. It is important for mental health, I think. But being spiritual doesn’t give you that sense of community traditional religion does – so what’s the alternative? I don’t know. Maybe it is just a common appreciation of everything.

I’d like to be more spiritual, but I can’t compromise truth to do so. I can’t lie to myself just to feel better. If there be such a deity self-delusion is not doubt the greatest sin. I guess I’ll just keep searching for my own truth – if there be such a thing. That’s all I can do.

The Appalachian Trail

Hills. The Georgia portion of the Appalachian Trail is a hill – both ways – always going up. Except when you’re going down. Going up or going down – uncomfortably down.  Trails that go up hills, then sharply down them. At least that’s what it feels like after 31 miles of them.

Beauty. There are beautiful views – views that make it clear why they call them the Blue Ridge Mountains. There are streams that run along most of the valleys that are equally as beautiful. It’s a great hike.

Appalachian Trail - 26

Thinking. At about 15 miles in my hiking partner and I stopped talking. The combination of exhaustion and spending the last 12 hours together left us without much to stay. That’s when most of the thinking begins. The valuable part of hiking. You start to think about a lot of stuff. Shower thoughts. Like:

  • It’s weird that we can drink filtered sewer water, but we’re supposed to boil fresh mountain spring water.
  • It seems strange that I spend 10 hours a day in a small room looking at a screen when there is so much outside.
  • I wonder when the last person to step here was. And here. And here. And here…
  • If I’m so happy hiking – with almost nothing – why do I feel like I need so much stuff?
  • I could eat so much right now.